By: Manoj Sapkota
Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel depicts the pathetic condition of French peasantry and the brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries towards the former aristocrats in the initial years of revolution. As it is a historical novel, though the characters are fictitious, it reveals the injustices, oppressions and the social problems of the then French society in addition to the violent appearance of revolution with excess of bloodshed. This paper explores the pitiful and wretched condition of former aristocrats caused by the barbarous nature of revolutionaries so as to take personal revenge in the name of politics, the plight of French peasantry demoralized by the aristocrats and the role of women in the revolution and its later depiction in French and the world literature.
The novel revolves around the French Revolution and the tension in England. Here, Dickens gives the tale of a family handling the extreme difficulty and obscurity in the conflict between aristocracy and the revolutionaries. His voice varies from being sympathetic with the revolutionaries due to their method of revolting. So, his neutrality though sometimes wavering from side to side, can be found apparent through the whole novel.
The historians have acknowledged that the French Revolution was one of the greatest revolutions of the west. Much has been said and discussed about the origins and the structure of the revolution, from the incompetency of Louis XVI, ignorance of the aristocracy and the hardship of French people’s life but much less had been said about the brutality of the revolutionaries and the role of women in the revolution and its later portrayal in the native as well as world literature.
New Historicism is a critical theory which aims to understand the work through its cultural context and to understand intellectual history through literature. As a critical approach to literature, it rejects the autonomy of text as well as the autonomy of the author rather it views the literary texts as only fore-grounded form of politico-cultural, social and economic background. So, it is inseparable from the historical background and the author is also in the grip of historical circumstances of the period of text. Thus history is an embedded element to literature and vice versa since literature is not simply the consequence of history rather it makes use of history through its participation in discursive practices. In this regard, Luis Montrose asserts:
The new(er) historical criticism could to be new in refusing unexamined distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘history’, between 'text' and 'context' is resisting a tendency to posit and privilege an autonomous individual whether an author or a work to be set against a social or literary background. To emphasize this view of Montrose, M.A.R. Habib says, “The new historicism argues that analysis of literary texts could not be restricted to texts themselves or to their author's psychology and background, rather the larger contexts and cultural conventions in which texts were produces needed to be considered.” (398/766)
So, the literary texts cannot provoke the crystal clear reality as they are influenced by psychological state of the author, her perception as well as the reaction towards the circumstances. And new historicism is such a literary theory based on the idea that literary texts should be studied and interpreted within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic. Thus the new historicism looks at the literature in a wider historical context, examining both how the writer's times affected the work and how the work reflects the writer's times.
The novel reveals the oppressions done from the aristocrat's side. Marquis Evremonde, the representative of aristocrats, drives his carriage over an innocent child of peasant and shows the inhuman characteristics. Evremonde, a man of about sixty, handsomely dressed, naughty in manner is a sociopath who sees cruelty as entertainment. He despises his own class but he can only unleash his hatred on those who cannot fight back like the farmer over whose son he drives the carriage. We find him crashing through the streets in his carriage, whipping his horses to froth and terrifying pedestrians. “It's extraordinary to me” (157), he tells the crowd that gathers at the scene “that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is for ever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses” (157)? This is the good example to show that Evremonde was a cruel ruler to enjoy at the trouble of others. After killing the child, he takes out a golden coin and throws to the crowd in compensation to the loss. It clarifies his attitude to objectify the peasants. Thus this novel written with sorrow and concern exposes the inhumanity of aristocrats. It shows sympathy for the miserable life of the oppressed and expresses extraordinary ideas about the mass revolution through the ambivalent attitude of the writer.
But in the next hand, in the novel, writer shows us a revolution where no one is right; no one is even being rational. Revolutionaries like Madame Defarge are killing innocent people to get revenge. But it is not given the more significance in the novel. The first characters to show very irrational and inhuman actions are the revolutionaries during the French Revolution. The cash broken in the streets of poverty striven down where the people were poor and looking for the way to end their suffering. The people rushed to the wine and began scooping it up with their hands. These ravenous actions are no humane and civilized.
As the aristocrats, the revolutionaries in the novel also hold many depositions. Charles Darnay who has already got detached from his uncle Marquis Evremonde seems to have a noble soul but he comes from the corrupted roots. He had a type of tussle with his uncle Evremonde who attempted to put him in prison. So, Darnay rejects the family name as shameful and rejects to assume his place as heir and prefers his penniless English life. But later on, though he was innocent and hadn't done any crime to the revolutionaries, due to being from the aristocratic background, he is imprisoned and told that he would be sentenced to death. It is not a justifiable action done by the revolutionaries. So in addition to the cruelty of the aristocrats, the revolutionaries also possess a type of inhumane and brutal attitude.
Due to being associated with Darnay, Lucie and her father, Dr. Mannete are also at the centre and closely observed by Madame Defarge to take the revenge with Darnay. They, including Darnay leave that place to save their lives. Because Syndey Carton becomes unable to win the heart of woman he loves, Lucie Mannete, he redeems himself giving up his own life so that Lucie's husband, Darnay might live. Thus, for the death of Carton too, the cruel role of the revolutionaries is responsible.
In the novel, Dickens traces the private lives of people caught in the cataclysm of the revolution. But the readers are unable to bear its clear picture in their mind. The whole action revolves around the Paris and London women. Those women provide the moral climate of the group or family throughout the whole narratives. In The Tale of Two Cities the emotional foundation has been provided to men by those women and that causes the man to act for or react against what the women represent.
Lucie Mannete and Madame Defarge are the two characters who ultimately put the Revolutionary France and England against each other. Lucie doesn't have the active role but she is highly influential. She influences others through who she is but not through what she does. Lucie created the comfortable home which provides the men with comfort in her life and her compassion for others really inspires them. They are able to uplift their status and they find the strength to escape the prison of their lives due to her goodness. She demonstrates the faith in the overriding power of gender as natural determinant of female identity. Her appeal to the sanctity of the middle class family and to the women's status as relative creatures within it can be found. In the novel, the writer presents her as a compassionate and virtuous woman who inspires affection in the other characters. Though she doesn't seem to be an important character in the poem, it is actually important her role. Because of her unconditional love and compassion, Lucie is used to demonstrate how strong their characters really are in the violent situation too.
In another side, though Madame Defarhge is sitting in her small wine shop knitting the death register, she is the acting leader of the revolutionary act in France. Regarding it, Bloom says, “Dickens provides us with the lady Macketh in Madame Defarge, the fiercely attractive genius of the French Revolution” (n. pag.). So, Defarge initiates the violence. She is childless and merciless. Although she is the antithesis of Lucie Mannete, they both possess the common ability that is to inspire others. She is the antithesis of Lucie in this sense that Lucie is creative and nurturing to life where as Defarge is destructive. Because Defarge was perished by her family in her early age, she seeks the revenge not only in her family but in the whole class. She knits a register of the oppressors which represents her patience and urge and she wants to doom them to destruction. Her knitting is a history which records the past in a mysterious manner. The register which she knits produces a shock in its implicit linkage of images and emotions. The creativity and maternal affection including nurture are linked with violence and death. The line “A rose lay beside her, and if she now and then glanced at the flower , it was with no infraction of her usual preoccupied air (249)” is the related example that the rose Fefarge pins in her head-dress as threatening sign to her fellows. It is important in another way also that the aesthetics of feminine ornament are organized in the service of revolution. Hence, as Defarge's handwork promotes violence and destruction, she is an important acting leader of French Revolution.
In parallel and contrast, Madame Defarge is described as a ‘tigress’ and absolutely without pity. Here Waters asserts, “As the careful juxtapositioning of Madame Defarge with Lucie Mannete in the novel shows, the universal human nature which Dickens is attempting to portray through these techniques of parallelism takes gender as the trans-historical constituent of identity and yet at the same time grounds it in the ideology of the Victorian middle class family” (139). So for the definition of female identity produced through the opposition between these women, Defarge and Lusie Mannete, hinges upon the expanded formation of domestic ideology as well as the propagation of values of home in Victorian middle-class culture.
In the name of politics, the revolutionists take the revenge with the aristocrats. Whatever they do, that is only to take the revenge of the suffering, embarrassment and agony they got from the aristocrats in the past. They have just disguised them in the form of the politicians and carry out the brutal acts against the former leading class. Their reaction is no less brutal and atrocious than the actions of upper class people. So, they have used the masks of politicians and to knit the conspiracy so as to imprison the former aristocrats.
To sum up, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities depicts the disguised form of the revolutionists taking revenge in brutal manner in the name of politics. We find female hinged upon the enlarged arrangement of domestic ideology. Defarge, a cruel and merciless woman who encourages devastation is a leading person of French Revolution. Though much remarkable role cannot be seen, Lucie is a weighty character around whom most of the actions of the novel move around. The role of the revolutionists is humane and brutal which takes the life of aristocrats as well as of former aristocrats and innocent people too. The images of the plight of revolution are demoralized by the aristocracy and the images of the predicament of aristocrats as well as former aristocrats caused by the uncultured traits of revolutionaries are significant in the novel.
Bloom, Harold. ed. “Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities Bloom’s Notes”. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: GRW Publishing Limited, 2003.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Renaissance Self- Fashioning: Form More to Shakespeare”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Montrose, Louis Adrin. “New Historicisms”. Redrawing the Boundaries: the Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and G. Gunn. New York: MLA Press, 1992. 392-418.
Waters, Catherine. Dickens and the Politics of the Family. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2000. 139.